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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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February 7, 2011

Not Letting Pfizer's UK Site Go to Waste?

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Posted by Derek

Let's hope that this works out - there's an attempt going on to bring in as many small-company investors as possible to keep parts of Pfizer's former Sandwich site open (and employing scientists):

George Freeman, the Tory MP and biotech expert, is calling on the Government to open Pfizer's site in Sandwich to venture capitalists and biotech angels in a bid to save as many of the 2,400 jobs, due to be axed when the plant closes, as it can.

Mr Freeman is in contact with top UK entrepreneurs, including Hermann Hauser, who founded Acorn computers, and serial biotech businessman Andy Richards, about how best to help the Pfizer scientists recycle their knowledge and skills into spin-outs or other similar ventures.

The problem with such efforts is that getting them off the ground after a site closure has been announced can be difficult. Even at their best, they won't be able to keep as many people discovering drugs as the old site did - but it's still much, much, better than nothing. Any UK readers with knowledge of what's going on, feel free to add details in the comments. . .

Comments (25) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets


1. Mark on February 7, 2011 2:23 PM writes...

Sandwich is in the middle of nowhere. I can't see it happening. There is a reason that most of the start-ups in the US are located near the biotech hubs (SF, Cambridge, Seattle, San Diego). The start-up/VC environment requires a network and critical mass, either of which Sandwich has.

Sometimes it's better to let bad ideas die than to try to keep them on life support.


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2. Geep on February 7, 2011 2:29 PM writes...

The British government have a long history of trying to salvage sites like this and get rings run around them by fraudulent businessmen or throw money at the wrong solutions (see mg rover).

However, this is unique as we have a Tory government and this is a Tory area, unlike other closures which were obviously in industrial heartlands.

The government like to trumpet how great we are in this sector because we destroyed everything else in pursuit of finance. Hopefully we will se a bit of soul searching as to where we really really go from here, rather than pin our hopes on imaginary industry and technology of the future.

Not holding my breath though.

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3. jack friday on February 7, 2011 2:37 PM writes...

Pie in the sky!

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4. Ed on February 7, 2011 2:46 PM writes...

Quite right, absolute pie in the sky! Because there isnt enough spare lab capacity in this country at the moment?

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5. David Formerly Known as a Chemist on February 7, 2011 3:12 PM writes...

This sounds like political posturing, and nothing more. Come on Derek, we see this all the time in the US, don't we? Large job losses are always met with politicians vowing to find some way to "save these jobs".

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6. DCRogers on February 7, 2011 4:01 PM writes...

At the risk of swimming against the cynical tide here, I think it behooves government to try to do *something* here, or the negative feedback loop could leave the local economy struggling for years.

I'm reminded of military base-closings here in the US. Early closings were done as walk-aways, and usually led to long-term decay of the local area. Later closings explicitly had lots of gov't intervention to encourage re-use; rarely as lucrative to the locals as the former base, but it kept the nearby downtowns from simply filling up with abandoned store-fronts.

That said, it'll be rough in Sandwich. The best people will quickly scatter, so you're left with some nice buildings; but even those are poorly designed for many alternative uses. (Many former military bases, on the other hand, were converted to prisons -- not as much of a stretch.)

Some involvement of gov't seems warranted to give some ideas a try -- these seem as good as any.

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7. Nick K on February 7, 2011 4:08 PM writes...

This initiative is most laudable, but I still have a horrible premonition that it's only delaying the inevitable restructuring and the redeployment of the workforce away from a dying industry.

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8. daen on February 7, 2011 4:42 PM writes...

If investors like Hauser (via Amadeus, presumably) want to get involved, I'm not sure what point there is in Freeman invoking the Great Dispensing Hand of Government. Surely this is a private matter for discussion between Pfizer and whoever Hauser and Richards can get together?

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9. barry on February 7, 2011 5:03 PM writes...

so what has been happening with the other sites that have gone dark in the last few years? Parke Davis in Ann Arbor? Syntex in Palo Alto?...(the list is long) Each is near a major university. Will they have new careers as incubators for start-ups?

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10. B on February 7, 2011 5:20 PM writes...

Yeah, right.

I imagine this will go the way of that government initiative to salvage the AZ Charnwood site.

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11. Pfred on February 7, 2011 8:24 PM writes...

Back when I worked in Groton,it always seemed like the really good ideas came from Sandwich. The political warfare at Central Research would kill anything promising before it got too far. They had a bunch of Corey grads all about the same age that fought like dogs - LaMatina eventually won, but the victory was phyrric.

For a while they actually talked about opening another R&D center to shield good ideas from the battles for Blooms job, but that died. Barry was a good guy, I never figured out why he let that happen.
But I ramble.
ANyway, too bad about the poor but productive bastard stepchild. You are the one that should have lived.

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12. NJBiologist on February 7, 2011 11:17 PM writes...

@9 barry: I can't speak for the former Syntex site, but the PD/PD-WL/Pfizer site in Ann Arbor is now called the University of Michigan North Campus Research Complex. Both the med school and the engineering school seem to be using it as incubator space.

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13. OnceAScintist on February 8, 2011 3:20 AM writes...

As others have pointed out, Sandwich is handicapped by its geographic location, bit like trying to do the same in Kalamazoo. The golden triangle for new wave industries in the UK is Oxford-Cambridge-London. Outside of that, there are some small pockets of activity but the majority of biotech/high-tech is concentrated within this area. Perhaps Sandwich could try to foster links with France since it is just a short hop across the Channel. That sort of European project is unlikely to appeal to the dominant party in the UK government though! Finally, even in Cambridge which is a real biotech hub by European standards, there's a lot of spare capacity with unused premises on the science parks. Good luck to them but it will be challenging!

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14. Ed on February 8, 2011 4:00 AM writes...

Not a cat in hells chance of anything coming from this - just typical government posturing. As someone has previously mentioned what has happened to the governments pledges to do a similar thing with the AZ Loughborough site (1500 employees if I recall), one year after the announced closure and absolutely zilch!

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15. Henry's cat on February 8, 2011 4:39 AM writes...

There's no way this massive site will be re-used. It simply does not make economic or geographic sense for anyone to move all the way down there. As it's on the coast, perhaps they should just tear down the buildings, let it flood and give it back to nature. At least there may be a few ranger jobs going for some of the poor jilted souls who work there or who provide any services to the site.

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16. A nonny Mouse on February 8, 2011 5:03 AM writes...

It was tried with the old Wellcome site in Kent; someone bought the chem, phys chem and some animal buildings while the rest went for housing. It stood empty for 2 years while the owner steadily went bankrupt- until he got permission for housing and then moved to Monaco to avoid taxes.

My feeling is that, if you could not get anything going close to London, then there is no way out in that remote spot (especially if Richards is involved......).

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17. chris on February 8, 2011 5:57 AM writes...

As other sites have found the buildings are just not designed for splitting up into small biotech spaces. Also as others have mentioned there is plenty of specifically designed "bioincubator" buildings sitting empty on the science parks.

What is possible is that Pfizer agree to spin off some of the scientific projects to a small group of ex-employees, so the work will still be carried out in the UK.

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18. Sian on February 8, 2011 9:03 AM writes...

Not far away from Sandwich, Sittingbourne to be precise, sits an old Shell Oil Co research campus. It's much smaller than the Sandwich site and much closer to London than Sandwich(42 miles). Pfizer was once a tenant and the facility remains underutilized.

The scale of the Pfizer property in Sandwich makes it harder for anything useful to come out of it. I would take George's statement as political rhetoric/posturing.

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19. A Nonny Mouse on February 8, 2011 9:58 AM writes...


Too true.

The only successful enterprise of this sort has been the old Fisons/Schering Agro site at Saffron Walden which is as a result of its proximity to Cambridge, but without the huge costs.

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20. Anonymous on February 8, 2011 2:40 PM writes...

B500 on the Sandwich site is a monument to inflexible science building design, everything connected through one glorious air conditioning system that tolerates no changes. Some of us told the management not to build it like that but nobody would listen. As a result there is a glleaming white elephant that was probably never fully occupied by Pfizer, which has huge running costs. Let's face it, if the much better situated Terlings Park and GSK Harlow have had no buyers, who on earth would want Sandwich ?

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21. fat old man on February 8, 2011 6:28 PM writes...

None of these comments takes into consideration that Pfizer is actively seeking a 'strategic partner' to take over Sandwich. This is an attempt at something more than a typical CRO/client relationship. Not saying it will work out, but I don't see the news anywhere else.

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22. Anonymous on February 9, 2011 1:40 PM writes...

"None of these comments takes into consideration that Pfizer is actively seeking a 'strategic partner' to take over Sandwich."

Pfizer wants an easy 'out' from the site - however it would take a real sucker to buy the whole of the real estate. 'Strategic partner' is just management waffle - they'd pay someone to take it of their hands, particularly if it can be portrayed as a gracious exit from the local area. But make no mistake, there will be no opportunities for chemists and most of the existing scientists going forwards.

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23. MultipleLOLs on February 17, 2011 8:41 AM writes...

There is only one option for the site, which is housing. There's a severe housing shortage in the UK and there is a trend towards granting planning permission to anywhere within the South East of England which offers a straight-forward railway journey to London. Whether there are many jobs available within the area isn't an issue, as the UK is fast becoming a solely consumerist society, and any influx of population will bring with it commercial ventures manifesting in a cloned high street consisting of WH Smith and Tesco Metro.

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24. Petros on February 17, 2011 2:16 PM writes...

To #23

There may be a severe housing shortage in the South East of the UK but Sandwich has appalling transport links to London. Brussels and Paris are accesible more quickly, via Eurostar, than London is.

You forgot to mention Charnwood, although I understand some progress is being made there

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25. Nick K on February 17, 2011 3:24 PM writes...

#24 Petros: You're right about the terrible transport links from Sandwich to London (ca. 60 mile drag up the A2 or a very slow train) but it's no easier to get to Paris or Brussels as you have to go to Ashford or Ebbsfleet to pick up the Eurostar.

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